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The recent declines of farmland bird populations in Britain: an appraisal of causal factors and conservation actions



In this paper, the main aspects of agricultural intensification that have led to population declines in farmland birds over the past 50 years are reviewed, together with the current state of knowledge, and the effects of recent conservation actions. For each of 30 declining species, attention is focused on: (1) the external causes of population declines, (2) the demographic mechanisms and (3) experimental tests of proposed external causal factors, together with the outcome of (4) specific conservation measures and (5) agri-environment schemes. Although each species has responded individually to particular aspects of agricultural change, certain groups of species share common causal factors. For example, declines in the population levels of seed-eating birds have been driven primarily by herbicide use and the switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown cereals, both of which have massively reduced the food supplies of these birds. Their population declines have been associated with reduced survival rates and, in some species, also with reduced reproductive rates. In waders of damp grassland, population declines have been driven mainly by land drainage and the associated intensification of grassland management. This has led to reduced reproductive success, as a result of lowered food availability, together with increased disturbance and trampling by farm stock, and in some localities increased nest predation. The external causal factors of population decline are known (with varying degrees of certainty) for all 30 species considered, and the demographic causal factors are known (again with varying degrees of certainty) for 24 such species. In at least 19 species, proposed causal factors have been tested and confirmed by experiment or by local conservation action, and 12 species have been shown to benefit (in terms of locally increased breeding density) from options available in one or more agri-environment schemes. Four aspects of agricultural change have been the main drivers of bird population declines, each affecting a wide range of species, namely: (1) weed-control, mainly through herbicide use; (2) the change from spring-sown to autumn-sown cereal varieties, and the associated earlier ploughing of stubbles and earlier crop growth; (3) land drainage and associated intensification of grassland management; and (4) increased stocking densities, mainly of cattle in the lowlands and sheep in the uplands. These changes have reduced the amounts of habitat and/or food available to many species. Other changes, such as the removal of hedgerows and 'rough patches', have affected smaller numbers of species, as have changes in the timings of cultivations and harvests. Although at least eight species have shown recent increases in their national population levels, many others seem set to continue declining, or to remain at a much reduced level, unless some relevant aspect of agricultural practice is changed.

Author(s): Newton, I

Journal: Ibis

Year: 2004


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